Exotic spices from Asia such as turmeric and fruits such as bananas reached the Mediterranean more than 3,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought. Based on the study of ancient proteins preserved in the tartar of deceased humans, researchers led by the LMU archaeologist Philipp Stockhammer show that even in the Bronze Age long-distance trade in food-connected societies living far away.

A market in the Levant in the city of Megiddo 3,700 years ago: the merchants offer their stalls not only wheat, millet, or dates, which grow everywhere in the Region. In addition to carafes with sesame oil, there have recently also been bowls with a bright yellow spice between their wares. Philipp Stockhammer imagines the market activity in the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean in a similar way. Together with an international team, the LMU archaeologist was able to prove with the analysis of food residues in human tartar that humans in the late Bronze and early Iron Age in the Levant were already eating turmeric, bananas, or soy. “Exotic spices, fruits, and oils from Asia reached the Mediterranean a few centuries, sometimes even thousands of years earlier than thought,” says Stockhammer. “It is the earliest direct detection of turmeric, banana, and soy outside South and East Asia.«

The first steps of globalization: long-distance trade flourished

The presence of certain food remains in the tartar of the deceased also means that already in the second millennium BC there was a lively long-distance trade in exotic fruits, spices, and oils. This probably passed through South Asia and Mesopotamia or Egypt– the first traces of globalization.
For their analyses, the international team around Stockhammer examined 16 individuals from the sites Megiddo and Tel Erani, which are located in today’s Israel. The region in the southern Levant had an important bridging function between the Mediterranean, Asia, and Egypt in the second millennium.

For their analysis, the researchers took samples from the teeth of individual individuals and analyzed which proteins and plant remains of the diet have been preserved in the tartar. “If you don’t do dental hygiene, archaeologists will tell us what you have been feeding on for thousands of years,” says Stockhammer.

Palaeoproteinanalysen the researchers call this new and promising scientific approach. “Our research shows the great potential of these methods to identify evidence of foods that otherwise leave few archaeological traces,” explains Christina Warinner, a bioarchaeologist at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for human history. “Our approach marks new scientific ground,” emphasizes LMU bioarchaeologist, Ashley Scott. Because it is not easy to assign individual protein sections to food. Once a Protein has survived for thousands of years, its identification is a major challenge. “Interestingly, allergy-causing proteins appear to be most stable in tartar,” says Scott.

The results of the study are published in the journal PNAS. It was created as part of Stockhammer’s project “FoodTransforms – Transformations of Food in the Eastern Mediterranean Late Bronze Age”, which is funded by the European Research Council ERC. The international study Team includes scientists from LMU Munich, Harvard University, and the Max Planck Institute for human history in Jena.